GURDIT SIṄGH, BĀBĀ (1861-1954), patriot of Komagata Maru fame, was born in 1861, into a Sandhū Sikh family of Sarhālī, a village in Amritsar district. Gurdit Siṅgh's grandfather had served in the Sikh army as an officer but his father, Hukam Siṅgh, was a small farmer of moderate means. Failing monsoon in 1870 drove Hukam Siṅgh to seek a living away from home. He migrated to Taiping, Malaysia, where he became a small time contractor. His eldest son, Pahilū Siṅgh, joined him there later but Gurdit Siṅgh remained in the village where, in the absence of a regular school, he learned to read and write Gurmukhī at the feet of the custodian of the local dharamsālā. A skilled horseman, Gurdit Siṅgh entertained the ambition of joining the Indian Cavalry, but was turned down by the recruitment board because he failed to meet the required physical standards. In 1885, he joined his father in Malaysia where he became a successful contractor and businessman.
Gurdit Siṅgh was married in 1885. From this marriage, he had two daughters and a son, all three of whom died. The wife herself passed away in 1904. His second wife bore him a son, Balvant Siṅgh, who survived his father. Gurdit Siṅgh established the Gurū Nānak Steamship Company and leased a Japanese ship, the Komagata Maru, renamed Gurū Nānak Jahāz, and launched it from Hong Kong in 1914 taking a batch of Indian emigrants to Canada. This was done to circumvent the new Canadian immigration ordinances which, aiming to stop the influx of Indians, prohibited entry into Canada of persons of every nationality except by a "continuous" journey on through tickets from the country of their birth or citizenship. There was no direct shipping service from India to Canada and the object of the Canadian government in passing the ordinances was specifically to debar the Indians. On the eve of the ship's scheduled departure, Gurdit Siṅgh was arrested and, pending final clearance, a large number of the passengers, cancelled their booking so that when he was released and the ship finally left port on 4 April 1914, only 194 of the original 500 passengers were on board. Intermediate stops were made at Shanghai, Moji and Yokohama. Gurdit Siṅgh received from Ghadr leaders, Maulawī Barkatullah and Gyānī Bhagwān Siṅgh, revolutionary literature which was distributed among the passengers whose number grew with groups picked up on the way to 376, of whom 359 were Sikhs. The ship finally arrived in Vancouver on 23 May 1914. Canadian officials refused to allow all but a few of the passengers to disembark and the ship remained at anchor for two months while Gurdit Siṅgh tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for the landing of his passengers. In this situation he enjoyed the full support of the Sikh community in Vancouver. Tension rose as the rations ran low. After a brief and violent confrontation in which a boat-load of Canadian officials attempting to board the S. S. Komagata Maru were repelled, a compromise was reached. The government of Canada provided rations and fuel for the return journey.
On 29 September 1914, the S.S. Komagata Maru docked at Budge Budge, near Calcutta. Bābā Gurdit Siṅgh and his Sikh companions became rebels in the eyes of the Indian government. His ship was searched for any arms he might be smuggling into India. In Calcutta, a special train was kept ready for the passengers to be transported back to their homes in the Punjab. Seventeen Muslim passengers obeyed government orders and boarded the train. The Sikh passengers refused and, forming themselves into a procession with the Gurū Granth Sāhib at the head of it, wended their way towards the city. British troops and police turned out and forced them back to the railway station where a clash occurred. Eighteen Sikhs were killed and twenty-five wounded. Police made arrests, but Gurdit Siṅgh escaped and evaded capture for seven years, packed with adventure and drama. Finally, he gave himself up to the police at Nankāṇā Sāhib on 15 November 1921, the birth anniversary of Gurū Nānak, after he had participated in religious observances at the shrine. He was imprisoned but freed in a little more than three months, on 28 February 1922. On his release, he was warmly received throughout the Punjab. He was arrested again on 7 March 1922 on charges of making seditious speeches at the Golden Temple at Amritsar and was held in jail for four years.
In 1926, he acted as president of the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal during the absence in jail of Sarmukh Siṅgh Jhabāl. At the 1926 Gauhāṭī session of the Indian National Congress, Gurdit Siṅgh led a walk-out by 50 Sikh delegates to protest against the Subjects Committee's decision not to include in its resolutions a reference to the ruler of the Sikh state of Nābhā who had been forced by the British to abdicate and for whose sake the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal had launched a mass agitation. During the period from 1931 to 1933, Gurdit Siṅgh was arrested three more times for his political activities. In 1937, he sought election to the Punjab Legislative Assembly as a nominee of the Indian National Congress, but lost to the Akālī candidate, Partāp Siṅgh Kāiroṅ. Bābā Gurdit Siṅgh took part in the Sarb-Sampradāi Conference (1934) on behalf of the Akālīs.
Bābā Gurdit Siṅgh died on 24 July 1954 at Amritsar.
Jaswant Siṅgh Jass